This is Really Long, and I Could Have Gone On
Because saving Hitler’s life was so popular, I’m going back to that old SF standby, time travel. More specifically, the Terminator films.
You should be hearing a DUN DUN DUN DUN-DUN DUN in your head right now. And if you didn’t, this will probably bore you to tears, because I’m about to go on, on and fucking on about those films.
Now, backwards time travel is inherently paradoxical. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible – logic doesn’t work too well in quantum physics either – but it does mean that time travel movies never make much sense. With the possible exception of Primer, but if you understood Primer the first time through, you are clearly an omniscient mathematical savant who is currently reading blogs on the internet rather than working at CERN or counting the number of clouds in the sky or something (I don’t understand how maths works).
But anyway, Terminator gets a lot of grief as making even less sense than the norm. There’s this Cracked article, and the Headscratchers page on TV Tropes is 78 motherfucking pages long. It flaunts the Grandfather paradox, the consistent causal loop paradox, the inconsistent causal loop paradox, and the Why Is That Dude Naked When He Can Clearly Make His Skin Into Clothes paradox. Don’t even get me started on the divisions between the TV series, the third movie, and the Sam Worthington Tries to Act movie.
But I love nude Arnold Schwarzenegger, I love trench coats and sawed-off shotguns, and I love Terminator. I have come to stand in its defense. Come with me if you want to make sense of ridiculous action movies (ha, ha, please don’t hurt me).
I stand, and say that Terminator makes EXACTLY as much sense as it should. Or, it makes perfect sense that it doesn’t make sense.
I may need to back that up.
If you remember my article about Killing Hitler Early, you know there are many popular interpretations of how time travel would work.
Terminator has a lot of conflicting evidence about just how Skynet’s time travel devices (I dub them the RETARDISes) work. Terminator 1 seems to be a closed causal loop, as per Stephen Hawking’s idea. Terminator 2 seems to be a Reset Button (inconsistent causal loop) version, where the old future was destroyed and they managed to create a new one. Terminator 3 and Salvation were fucking stupid, but they indicated some weird version of a closed causal loop, or perhaps the Many Worlds Theory.
And the very underrated TV show, Chronicles, seemed to be either Many Worlds or Reset Button. Now obviously, no matter which you pick, you’re going to run into plot holes somewhere down the line. Most people choose Many Worlds, and assume that each film takes place in a different timeline, created each time a RETARDIS is used.
I’m going to take a second out from this, and explain what I think the future of the Terminator universe looks like.
Each film except Salvation makes it clear that humanity is kicking Skynet’s fucking ass by the time the RETARDIS is invented. This makes perfect logical sense – as per NATO’s mid-1980s predictions, a full-scale nuke fight during the height of the Cold War would have killed off ‘just’ around 3 billion people, over a 10-year period. That leaves over 3 billion humans left over, and all Skynet has are a few drone aircraft, a handful of surviving robotic factories and some satellites. John Conner’s eventual victory would be hard-won, but ultimately unsurprising.
So Skynet invents the RETARDISes, and starts sending its infiltrator units back in time to wipe out human leaders. This isn’t a bad plan – without strong leadership, most of mankind might not even realize that Skynet was behind the attacks, or even that it exists. But here’s the kicker. RETARDISes clearly DON’T do Many Worlds time travel, because if they did, there would be no point in sending Terminators back in the first place. Skynet will still be destroyed in the original time line, and computers are simply not sentimental enough to care about the fate of another timeline’s Skynet. This leaves us with one option. It jibes with most of what we’ve seen, and it explains exactly why the series has so many plot holes.
Every RETARDIS is one giant Reset Button.
Every time someone is sent back in time, the entire future changes. No additional timelines are created – there is just one timeline, and it is in a constant state of flux. What is true one day may not be true the next.
RETARDISes are the equivalent of a nuke – they totally changed the nature of warfare. Sending agents back in time becomes a gamble – you know that the moment you hit that button on your RETARDIS, reality is going to shift around you. You’re hoping that it will shift to favour your side.
This explains why Kyle Reese’s story of the future was wrong. Due to all the time travel of the first two movies, the future was changed drastically. Not enough to prevent the Metalpocalypse, but not in Skynet’s favour either, because they sent the T-X back to kill John Connor and Claire Danes in T3.
‘But what about Chronicles,’ you ask. ‘T3 ended with Judgment Day happening. Doesn’t Chronicles thus have to be an alternate timeline, proving the Many Worlds theory?’
Well, helpfully incorrect hypothetical questioner, not necessarily. T3 happened, Judgement Day happened… and clearly the future humans managed to send someone back to destroy the military Skynet of T3. We didn’t see this, but that prevented the events of T3 from occurring, and the events of Chronicles happened instead.
And this is where this theory is proved. Because Chronicles features several time travellers, coming back at different points in the past, from different points in the future, for a variety of different reasons. And explicitly, the future is different every time.
There are no multiple timelines. There is just one, and for every soldier sent back to the 21st or 20th centuries, that future changes radically.
Judgment Day’s date is constantly shifting. Humanity’s success against Skynet is constantly changing. The very technology Skynet has access to is constantly changing – this might explain why there were no lasers in Salvation, because someone killed their inventors or blew up an important factory or something.
Do you get how much that changes the nature of war? Defeats can be turned into victories. Resources can be secured for your side before the fighting even began. Key enemy figures can be assassinated as children, you can win the war before it even starts, and the enemy can do the same to you.
This is why Salvation was stupid. Because in Terminator, the future ground war – with artillery and nukes and planes and giant mechs – is almost inconsequential. The, the chrono-commandoes and the RETARDISes are the weapons which will determine victory.
When you think about it, this explains almost every hole in the films. How /why did X happen? Because either Skynet or the humans sent a chrono-commando back to make sure it did. Why is the T-1000 so much more advanced than any other Skynet machine? Because he was created with technology from a different, more advanced version of the timeline. Why does Judgment Day keep happening, and yet there is supposedly no fate but what we make? Because Skynet can make fate too, and just as Sarah Connor tries to prevent its creation, so its chrono-commandoes fight to ensure it. In Chronicles, why do the future humans seem so dangerously in league with the robots? Because their leaders spent most of their lives being saved by reprogrammed robots!
This still leaves a couple of paradoxes – inconsistent causal loop problems, mainly. As well as a few plot holes concerning the operation of the RETARDISes (I’m pretty sure the Must Be Nude thing has bugged a lot of people).
But that can be explained with the simple realization that RETARDISes don’t obey normal rules of logic. They’re fucking time machines. They spit on logic more than Schrodinger’s cat piloting a pink Gundam. Clearly time travel can be done, so in the universe of the Terminators, logic is provably wrong at times.
Also consider that these things were designed by a weird, insane-by-human-standards being. That being was weeks from death when it designed and built these things. There’s a very good chance that every time the RETARDISes were used, they were in a bunker being shelled by laser mortars. These are not ideal manufacturing conditions. The RETARDISes are kind of like Japan’s kamikaze planes – a desperate, feverish deployment of weapons that are not fully understood or controlled. Why do they have to go back naked? A RETARDIS may as well be Edward Cullen for all the sense it has to make. They go back naked because the fucking thing will only send back naked things, and I’m too busy being nuked to redesign it. Why don’t they send chrono-commandoes further back, to the 1800s or something, and just go fucking nuts on JC’s ancestors? Maybe the RETARDISes use more power the further back you go, or maybe they’re worried that one of JC’s ancestors knew a guy who knew a guy who helped build the thing that helped build the thing that eventually let Skynet make laser rifles. I don’t know, and I don’t have to.
You want consistency, logic, and sense? Terminator fucks sense with Schwarzenegger’s indestructible robotic cock. This is a universe where our notions of logic and physics are just plain wrong, where the past and future are constantly changing, and where one chrono-commando can change the fate of the world more than a hundred nukes. This is a universe where four movies and a TV show can describe five different versions of a future, and they’re all correct.
Judgment Day has happened at least five times. It’s probably happened hundreds of times – reality reboots every time a RETARDIS is switched on. Lasers or no lasers, T-1000s or Claire Danes, everything is changeable. I don’t even know if an ultimate victory is possible, but if it is, it will be secured here, in the past.
“No fate but what we make?” Bullshit.
There is no fate, whatsoever.
 That wasn’t a very scientific article, and I’m not about to change my tone, so if you’re actually interested in the proper terminology for all this shit, read Paul Davies’ How to Build a Time Machine. Good read.